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February 12, 2013

Tim Greenway / Staff Photographer

Members of the Creative Community Coalition, from left, Abbeth Russell, William Hessian, Marrion Ladd and Asher Platts work on their presentation Monday at Russell’s and Hessian’s home in Portland. On Tuesday a Portland City Council committee will review proposed new rules on street art vending.

Street artists to Portland: We draw the tourists

PORTLAND – A group of artists hopes to convince city officials that street artists are assets to be embraced, not problems to be solved.

The Creative Community Coalition grew out of the Facebook group Protect Portland's Creative Community, which was formed more than a year ago to oppose a crackdown on street artists.

"Street artists are a huge part of the reason why this city is so successful," said Abbeth Russell, one of the group's founders. "Street artists are a huge part of the draw for tourism and for new people coming into the city."

As Portland has grown as a tourist destination, so has the number of street artists looking to cash in.

In 2011, a city attorney took to the streets and told some vendors that their products didn't constitute art, a constitutionally protected form of expression. That meant vendors, including craftsmen, could no longer sell their wares on the streets.

A public hearing on the crackdown filled Merrill Auditorium's Rehearsal Hall, and prompted the city to form a task force to examine the issue.

In 2012, the task force decided to better educate artists about the rules, which prohibit vendors from setting up on benches and using displays larger than 12 square feet, and require them to leave a 4-foot-wide path along the sidewalk for pedestrians.

Last fall, the task force reconvened, decided there was still a problem and proposed new restrictions that are now before the committee.

The proposal would ban street art vendors from setting up in Bell Buoy Park on the waterfront, a coveted spot during cruise-ship season.

New rules also would prohibit set-ups on sidewalks that are less than 8 feet wide and within 10 feet of an open, non-food retailer. Artists would register at City Hall -- at no charge -- before selling their art.

The 8-foot sidewalk requirement would rule out Market, Silver, Fore and Wharf streets, and portions of Moulton Street. The 10-foot buffer from open retail establishments would prevent artists from setting up along much of Exchange Street.

"It would really squeeze us out to where there is no foot traffic," Russell said. "They may as well just be banning street art altogether."

City Councilor Edward Suslovic chairs the council's Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, which will review the proposed rules Tuesday night.

He said, "I am open to anything that addresses the identified problems."

The new rules are seen as a way to keep sidewalks passable and respect bricks-and-mortar merchants, 60 of whom signed a petition asking the city to crack down on street artists.

The artists group has submitted its own proposals: Make some streets open only to pedestrians; allow artists to set up anywhere, if they leave 4 feet of sidewalk space; and leave Bell Buoy Park open to artists.

Russell said her group is getting support from businesses. Artists plan to attend Tuesday's meeting wearing "We Support Street Art" T-shirts.

City Councilor Jill Duson, who serves on the committee, said she had not yet reviewed the artists group's suggestions. She said she is open to other suggestions but doesn't want to further delay action.

Duson supports the city's proposed rules, especially the free registry, which would give the city an easy way to contact artists.

Duson and Suslovic said the city is not targeting artists. They noted that mobile food vendors cannot set up within 65 feet of a restaurant.

Russell, 25, an East Bayside resident who was drawn to Portland from Massachusetts because of its welcoming arts scene, said the artists group opposes the registration system because it would add to the workload, which could lead to fees for artists.

Russell, who served on the city's Street Artist Task Force, said she got frustrated with the city-appointed group. As the only representative of street artists, she felt that her views were not being taken seriously.

Since the proposed rules are in response to concerns about congestion, the group recommends opening certain streets -- such as Exchange and Milk streets -- to pedestrians only, Russell said.

Duson said there is no plan to charge artists a registration fee. If a proposal surfaces, artists will have plenty of opportunities to weigh in, she said.

The council committee last took up the task force's proposed rules in December, but tabled a vote until city staff could draw up a map showing how the rules would displace artists. As of Monday evening, that map was not publicly available.

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings





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